By Alvin Starkman M.A., J.D.
Gloria Cruz Sánchez holds a jícara (half gourd), high above her head while in a ritualized fashion she pours water down into a large green glazed ceramic bowl containing a beige doughy mush, creating foam. She’s in the Oaxaca Sunday market town of Tlacolula de Matamoros, completing the last phase in making tejate, just like her forebears thousands of years earlier. If you’ve been to a Oaxacan market you’ve likely seen it being served to locals, and may have been afraid to imbibe; it looks like spent shaving cream that surely would make you ill. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Tejate is a nutritious pre-Hispanic drink which was reserved for Aztec high priests, and Zapotec rulers before them. It’s still consumed today by Oaxacans of every station in life. Tejate is made exclusively by women, using virtually the same ingredients and methods employed over millennia. It dates to more than 3,000 years ago.
Tejate’s components are corn, cacao (sometimes substituted with coconut), purified or mountain spring water, seeds of the mamey fruit, dried aromatic “funeral tree flowers” (from the Quararibea funebris bush), lime mineral, sometimes a seasonal nut, and ash from burnt wood. As distinct from many other traditional Oaxacan delicacies (i.e. mole negro), all of tejate’s ingredients are native to Mexico; and all but cacao are endemic to the state of Oaxaca. There is, however, one exception: for the asking the tejatera will add sugary water as a sweetener, whereas in pre-Hispanic times she would have used bee honey or baked caramelized agave.
Preparing tejate is an extremely laborious task. In fact in order to have it ready to serve in markets by about 9:30 am, women must begin the process at roughly 4:00 am. And so Gloria awakens at her home in the village of San Marcos Tlapazola while it’s still dark, long before roosters have begun to crow, so as to have her tejate ready for market sales. She toasts the flowers, mamey seeds and cacao on an earthen comal using dried pencas (agave leaves) as firewood. She does the same with peanuts. She keeps the mixtures segregated from one another.
She then washes the corn in a clay colander, gingerly removing any small stones. Thereafter she boils spring water in a terracotta cauldron on a stone base, again fueled with leaves of the succulent. She adds powdered lime, strained ash, and the corn. The mixture simmers for about 40 minutes. The flames die down. The corn is strained once more to cool and to remove excess ash.
Gloria now reaps the benefits of the modern age; she walks to a mill to have the cacao mixture and then the corn, separately ground. She used to do all the grinding on a metate (primitive grinding stone), but when the mill opened in her village she decided to take advantage of it. She then ambles back to her homestead. While the mixtures are again cooling, breakfast preparations ensue. It’s about 6:00 am, and time for a small drink of mezcal.
Gloria spends the next two hours grinding the roasted peanuts on a metate followed by painstakingly combining that puree with the corn and cacao mixtures. It all gets blended together in an orderly, almost ceremonial manner. This most delicate step must be done by hand.
After breakfast, in the back of a covered pickup along with others from the village, Gloria travels to Tlacolula, where she erects her stall. She begins the pièce de résistance, holding the jícara high above her head with one hand, the other mixing the almost buttery thick concoction with the water from on high. She repeats the process until all in the ceramic bowl has been transformed into tejate, the cacao-nutty-maple frothy drink of the gods.
Gloria has her regular customers, those who attend the market on a weekly basis; but many are infrequent visitors, including both foreign and domestic tourists. Some drink Gloria’s tejate alongside her stall, in a painted jícara she supplies. Others buy it in a plastic cup “to go.” Usually by mid-afternoon, typically no later than 4 pm, she’s completely sold out. Gloria will then shop for more ingredients in the market, readying for the next Sunday’s preparations before returning to her village in the back of that same covered pick-up. It’s been a hard yet rewarding, long day’s work.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com). For the past three decades he’s been a regular imbiber of tejate; and he’s still standing.